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Originally published Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Historic schooner Wawona heads for demise

The 111-year-old Wawona was maneuvered Wednesday from South Lake Union to her death at a dry dock on the east side of the lake. The historic schooner was beyond repair because of rot and beetle infestations.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The Wawona didn't give any trouble to the two tugboats that maneuvered the 111-year-old schooner Wednesday from South Lake Union to her death at a dry dock on the east side of the lake.

The historic ship, patched up with plywood for the 40-minute voyage, glided silently to her fate, almost like an old dog being taken on that last trip to the vet.

The elements cooperated, too, and as the iconic ship began moving at about 8:15 a.m., there was no wind, no rain, and the water looked like a mirror.

"I call it, 'death with dignity,' " said Kay Bullitt, 84, the venerable Seattle civic activist who had come to the dock to bid goodbye to the Wawona.

In 1963, after reading an article in this paper about the Wawona — then already deteriorating — Bullitt began the effort to save the ship.

Since then, 46 years have gone by, with thousands of volunteer hours and numerous fundraising efforts. The ship, in 1970, was the first vessel to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1977, the Wawona was designated an official Seattle landmark.

Through all those decades, there was always plenty of enthusiasm from a small core of the Wawona's fans but never enough money.

In the mid-1960s, Bullitt said, a dry dock estimate to completely repair the Wawona was $75,000, about $500,000 in today's dollars.

By 2005, because of water intrusion that was followed by beetle infestation, a full restoration was estimated at $15 million.

And so, said Joe Shickich, president of NW Seaport, the nonprofit that owns the Wawona, the decision was made to demolish her, with portions saved, such as the captain's cabin.

The saved portions will be featured in the new Museum of History & Industry going in at South Lake Union Park.

"It's a bittersweet day, a melancholic day," said Shickich, who was in another boat, following the Wawona to her end. "She's moving to the next stage."

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The next stage means that starting Monday, and for at least three weeks, the Wawona will be sawed up at the Lake Union Drydock Company.

Hobie Stebbins, the company's vice president, said that 90 percent to 95 percent of the ship will end up in a landfill.

The sight of the Wawona being tugged away was too much for Seattle author Joe Follansbee to see in person.

After writing his authoritative 2006 book about the Wawona, "Shipbuilders, Sea Captains, and Fishermen," he said, "I feel a personal connection to her. It'd be like watching someone die. I couldn't do it. Saving a few pieces of it is a poor substitute for an intact vessel."

Sister ship left

There were some 200 vessels like the Wawona built in a California shipyard.

With the Wawona gone, the only one left is a sister ship, the C.A. Thayer, moored in San Francisco at a maritime museum park.

Now there are no more opportunities to board the Wawona and imagine its working days.

Launched in September 1897, for 17 years she hauled lumber up and down the Pacific Coast, carrying not only a full load in her hold but on her deck, too.

At 165 feet long, the Wawona looked magnificent, one of the largest three-masted schooners of her day.

She was built of Douglas fir — her backbone made of two 120-foot-long, 1 ½-by-1 ½-foot timbers, all straight grain, with no knots.

The captain's cabin was built especially strong in case lumber broke away on the deck.

In 1914, she became a fishing schooner, going to the dangerous waters of the Bering Sea for cod.

It was grueling work. As many as 10,000 fish a day were salted and carried in her cavernous hold, with the men putting in 12 hours straight dressing the fish.

During World War II, the Wawona was used as a military barge, then later returned to fishing. Its use as a working ship ceased in the late 1940s.

The Wawona, with big holes and rotting planks, might not have been a beautiful lady to some.

But Wednesday, plenty of eyes welled up as she silently went away.

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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